Deconstructing Democracy, Part 5: Contingency and Self-Restraint.

datePosted on 03:09, June 18th, 2009 by Pablo

In Part 2 of this series I mentioned the notion of contingent consent. I noted that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is contingent on collective and individual expectations being met at the economic, social and political levels.  Today I begin by broadening that notion.

As Adam Przeworski pointed out some time ago, democracy is a contingent outcome of conflicts. No more and no less, at a political level “democracy” is a particular method for resolving conflicts between competing political and socio-economic groups. There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, but those involve degrees of coercion, intimidation and imposition rather than peaceful resolution of competing interests. Democracy is unique in that it is a political system (and society) that is based upon the contingent, amicable resolution of conflicts between collective (at the political level) and individual (at the societal level) interests. It is therefore unusual in the sense that it has an institutional bias (a story in and of itself) in favour of compromise rather than imposition. It is unique amongst social hierarchies because of its preference for the middlle view, rather than elite preference. Yet, the orientation towards peaceful or amicable conflict resolution in pursuit of mass consensus adds weight to the contingency of the resolution in question. Once again, we must unpack the term in order to understand its broader implications.

Democracy survives in the measure that it meets popular (not just majority) expectations. Expectations are a product of popular conceptions of entitlements and rights, often enshrined in law but always perpetuated in foklore and myth. The key for all governments is to manage expectations so that the political form can be reproduced. Authoritarian regimes reduce expectations (often to zero) in certain policy areas in order to satisfy those in others (if at all; in their most degenerate stage authoritarian regimes become mere kleptocracies, ideologically perverse fetishists or homicidal cliques, as the regimes led by Anastasio Somoza, Kim Jung-Il or Robert Mugabe attest). The difference is that democracies must satisify popular expectations in virtually all policy areas, or at least convince the public that a commonly-recognized hierachy of needs must be satisfied in order of priority, so as to reproduce mass contingent consent successfully. Everything political, in other words, is contigent in a democracy.

Democratic rule is contingent on popular expectations being met, and those expectations are raised or lowered by party promises while in government and opposition. In the measure that popular expectations of policy outcomes are broadly met, the government survives and the regime prospers. In the measure that popular expectations are not met governments fall and the regime is undermined. The reason for the latter is that, when confronted with repeated failures to meet expectations by ideologically different governments, popular confidence in the regime type  as a whole begins to fall. When successive governments fail to meet expectations or live up to their promises, popular confidence in the regime begins to suffer. If prolonged, such a loss of confidence can lead to withdrawl of mass contingent consent to the regime, as people do not differentiate between the inaction or failures of particular governments and the regime as a whole (this was seen in Latin America in the 1990s and led directly to the resurgence of indigenous socialism in that region in the 2000s).  Put another way: how many people, including those in the media, confuse the term “government” and “regime” when addressing issues of policy even during stable times? (another reason why conceptual precision should be a requirement in journalism as well as academic discourse). The result in any event is mass withdrawal of consent and a crisis of the regime. Hence, of all regime types, democracy is the most contingent on popular expectations being continuously met, which in turn forces political elites to frame policy debates in ways that allow them to do so. The more informed the public and the stronger the sense of entitlement and endowment of basic rights in society, the harder it is for elites to control the terms of that debate.

How then, can democratic governments continuously meet popular, or at least majority expectations with an eye towards peacefully resolving collective conflicts in order to secure ongoing contingent mass consent given any particular mix of perceived rights and entitlements? The answer lies at the heart of democratic society and is what distinguishes it from all non-democratic social hierarchies: self-restraint. Collective and individual self-restraint is the hallmark of “mature” democracies.

Contrary to economic logics that posit that the uncoordinated actions of self-interested maximizers of opportunities lead the market to clear in an equilibrated state, strategic interaction in democracies is predicated on the conscious adoption by collective actors (and individuals) of self-restraint when pursuing their interests. The use of self-restraint (or self-binding strategies) is done in order to pursue mutual second-best options rather than first choices, since the pursuit of the latter can lead to unbrindled conflict that, although individually optimal for the victors,  is collectively sub-optimal in terms of social peace and regime stability (as it is inherently unstable and prone to challenge by force).  Actors may use militant-moderate strategies to pursue their interests, in which they stake a militant position or demand in order to create space for the achievement of moderate compromises (as occurs in collective wage bargaining), but the objective is the moderate goal, not the militant one. In adopting the mutual second best approach to strategic interaction, collective actors and individuals take into account the interests and strategies of other actors. The democratic “game,” in other words, is coordinated, with actor coordination premised on mutual self-restraint.

Recall that capitalist democracy is itself a product of self-restraint and compromise on the part of capitalists and workers: capitalists consent to democracy and a reduced rate of exploitation, while workers consent to private ownership of the means of production and the universal logics of capitalist markets. Democracy is, in effect, a grand compromise born of collective self-restraint in pursuit of  mass contingent consent.

The threat to democracy comes when collective actors and individuals abandon the practice of self-restraint and pursuit of mutual second best choices that are Nash equilibrated and often Pareto optimal in favour of egotistical first choice preferences. Often this is done because the actor in question believes in the superiority of its view on a given social construct or policy issue, but it can also be simply a matter of greed or ingrained authoritarianism. In New Zealand the political party that is the closest to this approach is ACT, which sees its market/libertarian/social authoritarian beliefs (yes, there is a contradiction there) as superior to all other political views and thus not worth compromising. Most other parties, to include the Greens, understand the give and take needed for the collective mutual second best to obtain over time, but ACT remains zealous, some might say extremist, in its approach to policy-making. In the measure that it continues to do so it is, consequently, a threat to democratic stability.

As with the other concepts examined in this series,there is more to the discussion of contingency and self-restraint in a democracy, particularly the macro-, meso- and micro-levels in which they are manifest and the tradeoffs that occur within and between each level. Suffice it to note here that the salient characteristics of democracies are their ability to inculcate in rulers and ruled the notion that self-restraint is an important ideal in and of itself, and that all political decisions and policy outputs must subject themselves to the contingency test that diminishes uncertainties, upholds universal rights, satisfies entitlements, improves accountability and reproduces mass consent over time. In the measure that they do so, we can say that such democracies are “hegemonic.”

This is the last of this series. My partner has joked that I have single-handedly driven down the blog readership with my long-winded ruminations amid the more topical posts of my blog colleagues. My apologies if that is so, but if nothing else the very act of writing has begun to clarify my thinking on the subject, and hopefully that of some readers as well.

One Response to “Deconstructing Democracy, Part 5: Contingency and Self-Restraint.”

  1. Ari on June 19th, 2009 at 07:27

    The threat to democracy comes when collective actors and individuals abandon the practice of self-restraint and pursuit of mutual second best choices that are Nash equilibrated and often Pareto optimal in favour of egotistical first choice preferences. Often this is done because the actor in question believes in the superiority of its view on a given social construct or policy issue, but it can also be simply a matter of greed or ingrained authoritarianism. In New Zealand the political party that is the closest to this approach is ACT, which sees its market/libertarian/social authoritarian beliefs (yes, there is a contradiction there) as superior to all other political views and thus not worth compromising. Most other parties, to include the Greens, understand the give and take needed for the collective mutual second best to obtain over time, but ACT remains zealous, some might say extremist, in its approach to policy-making. In the measure that it continues to do so it is, consequently, a threat to democratic stability.

    Hahaha, so true. I’ve often privately summed up ACT as the extremist party, but this is a much more rigorous way of saying it. Thanks ;)

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